Justice Dept.: ‘Poor Judgment’ Used in Epstein Plea Deal

November 13, 2020

WASHINGTON — A Justice Department report has found that former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta exercised "poor judgment" in handling an investigation into wealthy financier  Jeffrey Epstein  when he was a top federal prosecutor in Florida. But it also says he did not engage in professional misconduct.

The 350-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, marks the culmination of an investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility into Acosta's handling of a secret plea deal with Epstein, who had been accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls.

Though the report faulted Acosta for his judgment, it concluded that his actions in arranging the deal did not constitute misconduct, and that none of the prosecutors involved committed misconduct in their interactions with the victims. The conclusions are likely to disappoint the victims, who have long hoped the internal investigation would hold Justice Department officials accountable for actions they say allowed Epstein to escape justice.

In a statement, Acosta expressed vindication at the report's conclusion that he had not committed misconduct, saying it "fully debunks" allegations that he had cut a sweetheart deal for Epstein. He said the report confirmed that his decision to open an investigation into Epstein had resulted in a jail sentence and a sex offender registration for the financier.

"OPR's report and public records document that without federal involvement, Epstein would have walked free," Acosta said in the statement.

Under the 2008 non-prosecution agreement — also known as an NPA — Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges in Florida of soliciting and procuring a minor for prostitution. That allowed him to avert a possible life sentence, instead serving 13 months in a work-release program. He was required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.

Epstein was later charged by federal prosecutors in Manhattan for nearly identical allegations in 2019, but he took his own life while in federal custody as he awaited trial. Acosta said the "Epstein affair" was vastly "more lurid and sweeping" than when he was first involved, an allusion to some of the high-profile names referenced in media reports as friends or associates of Epstein, and the fact that more evidence has now been assembled as additional victims have come forward.

In a separate statement, Marie Villafana, who was a lead prosecutor in the Florida investigation, said she was pleased OPR had completed the report but was "disappointed that it has not released the full report so the victims and the public can have a fuller accounting of the depth of interference that led to the patently unjust outcome in the Epstein case. 

"That injustice, I believe, was the result of deep, implicit institutional biases that prevented me and the FBI agents who worked diligently on this case from holding Mr. Epstein accountable for his crimes," she said.

Brad Edwards, an attorney for several of Epstein's victims, called the report a "disappointing sidestep of the issue. He said the Justice Department "appears to have backed in to a desired result that is difficult to reconcile with the facts."

"We are left still wondering why Jeffrey Epstein got the sweetheart deal he did and who exactly made the decision to transform a lengthy sex trafficking indictment into a non-prosecution agreement," Edwards said. 

The report was also condemned by Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has questioned Justice Department officials about the plea deal repeatedly.

"Letting a well-connected billionaire get away with child rape and international sex trafficking isn't 'poor judgment' – it is a disgusting failure. Americans ought to be enraged," Sasse said. "Jeffrey Epstein should be rotting behind bars today, but the Justice Department failed Epstein's victims at every turn." 

The OPR investigation centered on two aspects of the Epstein case — whether prosecutors committed misconduct by resolving the allegations through a non-prosecution agreement, and also whether they failed to keep victims adequately in the loop on developments in the case.

The report concluded that prosecutors did not commit misconduct in their interactions with the victims because there was no "clear and unambiguous duty" to consult with them before entering into the non-prosecution agreement. But it says the lack of consultation reflected poorly on the Justice Department and "is contradictory to the Department's mission to minimize the frustration and confusion that victims of a crime endure." 

The internal probe also concluded that Acosta's decision to resolve the federal investigation through the non-prosecution agreement constituted poor judgment. Investigators found that although it was within his broad discretion and did not result from "improper factors," the agreement was nonetheless "a flawed mechanism for satisfying the federal interest that caused the government to open its investigation of Epstein."

Still, the report concluded that Acosta had the authority as U.S. attorney "to resolve the case as he deemed necessary and appropriate, as long as his decision was not motivated or influenced by improper factors." 

The office said its investigation had turned up no evidence that Acosta was swayed by "impermissible considerations, such as Epstein's wealth, status, or associations" and in fact had resisted efforts by defense lawyers to return the case to the state for whatever outcome the state wanted.

The report also did not find that a well-publicized 2007 breakfast meeting with one of Epstein's attorneys led to the non-prosecution agreement — which had been signed weeks earlier — "or to any other significant decision that benefited Epstein." Records reviewed by the professional responsibility office show that prosecutors weighed concerns about witness credibility and the impact of a trial on victims, as well as Acosta's concerns about the Justice Department's proper role in prosecuting solicitation crimes. 

"Accordingly," the report said, "OPR does not find that Acosta engaged in professional misconduct by resolving the federal investigation of Epstein in the way he did or that the other subjects committed professional misconduct through their implementation of Acosta's decisions."


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